One hundred years ago the men would have been walking the sheep to market, but here they are being returned to the field from which they escaped – the result of a careless walker leaving the gate open at Ward’s Hurst farm. (Ward’s comb in 1762)
This was the very route taken by the long distance drovers as long ago as Tudor times, walking their cattle from Wales to Smithfield market in London. This is confirmed by the hollow-ways skirting around Beacon Hill , to their meeting place at Piccadilly Hill – the cattle wore metal shoes which scoured out the track-ways over the centuries leading up over the escarpment.
Beacon Road was a mere track-way in those times, devoid of vehicular movement, until the Bridgewaters rebuilt it in the early 1800’s, but it would take another one hundred years before it became a modern tarmacked road. Like so many important discoveries in life tarmacadam came about by chance in Derbyshire in 1901, when a barrel of tar literally fell off the back of a “lorry”! It went on to become the world-wide method of road construction which today we take for granted. The much acclaimed painting by Paul Nash shows the road in 1924 still without a tarmac surface. The roadway as it passes Crawley Wood is at the highest point on the Ashridge Estate at eight hundred and sixteen feet (249 metres), sixty two feet higher than the Beacon, and may well have been a landmark in ancient times when the area was an open common and probably located on one of the original routes of the ancient Icknield Way.
The drovers took to using these secondary routes throughout England because of the ruinous state of the main roads. The upsurge of trade from the Tudor period produced lots of heavy haulage waggons that turned many road surfaces into a quagmire in winter, and a dust bowl in summer. The introduction of turnpike roads was very successful because they were maintained, but largely ignored by the drovers since they incurred toll charges!
Daniel Defoe in 1724-1726 said of turnpike roads that ‘The fat cattle will drive lighter and come to market with less toil and will go further in one day and not waste their flesh and heat and spoil themselves in wallowing through the mud and sloughs as is now the case.’ – between 1760 and 1774 some four hundred and fifty Turnpike Acts were passed.
So imagine the colourful procession with the shouts of a Welsh voice, the noise of the whips, the dogs and cattle, with their metal shoes, and the dust from the road – what a sight it must have been!
Life was very quiet in the countryside in those days, and the sounds would have travelled for miles. There was no mechanical noise to interfere with the sounds of nature apart from the occasional cart, and the distant ringing of the church bell for a birth or marriage, or tolling for death. Sunday was observed as the Lord’s day when all the country folk were called to Church, and the Welsh drovers took a rest day.
George III passed an act in 1774 restricting all road traffic on a Sunday.
In September 1869 The Reverend Mr Roberts, Secretary to the Scottish Sabbath Alliance, questioned why Scotch drovers moved their cattle on the Sabbath. “Now the Welsh drovers were far from being good men – some of them were pious – but there was such regard paid by them and everyone else to the religious feelings of the community, that not one of those wicked men would take it upon himself to drive cattle through the country on the Sabbath day”.